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Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.

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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, theatre

 

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Enlightened and Inspired Funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

In nonprofit theatre, folks spend a lot of time talking about how the “model is broken.”  That phrase is bandied about referring to the production model, the business model, the funding model, you name it.  Within all the broken talk, there are a few brave souls actually testing new models.  The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) are two of these brave souls.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rodney Christopher & Rebecca Thomas of NFF on their “Leading for the Future” initiative, supported by DDCF (check out the webinar slides and video).   The presentation also featured Cynthia Hedstrom and Jamie Proskin from The Wooster Group and Amanda Nelson and Thomas Cott from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.  I’m thankful to NFF for posting the video; the presentations were fast and furious with a lot of great information. (some of which I missed the first time around due to live tweeting!)

I’ve been following the information NFF has released over the past year regarding this incredible initiative.  If you haven’t yet read “The Case for Change Capital” or watched the video case studies, I highly recommend them.  I hope this project is a sign of things to come.

For those new to the Change Capital and Leading for the Future conversation, NFF and DDCF have teamed up to provide up to $1 million to each of 10 arts organizations “intended to allow participants to take transformative rather than incremental steps to remain artistically relevant, effective and excellent while ensuring long-term financial viability.”  The capital is meant to be expended over the course of four or five years.  Some organizations are using the funds to grow, some to shrink, some to reach new audiences in new ways, one organization is using the capital to responsibly wrap up their operations.  There are a number of revolutionary components to this funding model:

  1. The size of the grant allows for truly transformative change.  NFF and DDCF are not asking for the moon while only providing enough funds for a trip to the beach.
  2. The massive investment is funded from one source; the organizations did not have to cobble together 15-20 different small or mid-sized grants in order to make this happen.  I believe this not only saves organizational energy from searching for, courting, and applying for separate funding, it also saves the proposed transformation from too many cooks in the kitchen.
  3. The choice of how best to achieve transformational change was left to the organizations, with technical assistance and professional consultation from NFF.  Allowing the organizations to chart their own future and adjust their course as the funding period proceeded means the folks on the ground, witnessing the actual impact of the changes are the ones steering the ship.  Plus, they are fully invested in their destination.
  4. The time period is long enough to allow the organizations to build up to sustainability, with the acknowledgement that there probably would be deficits as they made changes and then grew into their new structure.  I’ve seen a few grantors provide funding for new or expanded positions at arts organizations.  However, these are often at most two-year programs.  Expecting a small or mid-sized arts organization to go from not having money for a $50k/year Development Director to having enough surplus to not only cover that salary but also all the other incremental costs that come along with that investment (not to mention all the other incremental increases in costs we all face every year) in only two years can be too much for many organizations to handle.  If you want true, sustainable change, you have to allow time to grow into your new skin.
  5. It encourages strategic risk at the exact time we as arts organizations are fighting the urge to buckle down and hide from the financial uncertainty.  It is taking advantage of what Jerry Yoshitomi called “an unfreezing moment.”  These chances have to be seized before everything finds its new baseline.

Back in late 2008 / early 2009 a lot of us in nonprofit theatre were speculating that those who made it through this recession were going to come out the other side stronger, leaner, and more resilient.  I think that is proving to be true.  However, just as Michael Kaiser suggested in The Art of the Turnaround that those who manage through turnarounds must be careful to not keep too tight a fist when stability is reclaimed, we must now begin to look at how we will not just survive but explode the status quo with revolutionary models of our own.  Who knows, maybe this is just the beginning of a tide of change capital to help us all transform into what we are next meant to be.

 
 

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Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.

 

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Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

During the last few weeks of complete radio silence on this blog, I’ve been getting my brain wrapped around my new position as Managing Director at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  Thank you all for your patience with me!

Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking and tweeting (@amywratchford) about all the issues and opportunities around our industry.  One thing that has been top-of-mind for me lately is the general lack of General Operating Support (GOS) in our industry.  I’ve heard over and over from theatres and arts organizations that GOS is what they need, and I know the funders are hearing it too.  And yet we continue to see a preponderance of project funding and a scarcity of GOS.  This has gotten to the point where projects are specifically created in order to attract funding, even when basic financial needs of the company are not being met.  We, as an industry, tend to shake our fists and rage against out-of-touch funders who won’t recognize what would truly help us be sustainable.  I, however, think we only have ourselves to blame.

We have trained the foundations and major donors to give us project-based support.  In fact, we’ve trained them on multiple levels:

  • A consistent inability to talk about why we matter outside of the impact of specific projects
  • A consistent approach to documentation, especially financial documentation, of only sending what they ask for and then only in the broadest possible terms
  • Avoidance of explanations of how stable (or not) we are as organizations and what we are doing to make ourselves better (I mean this from a fiscal as well as an organizational/managerial standpoint)
  • A general lack of drilling down to details about who our audience is, how we will reach them, and how we expect to impact them
  • Avoidance of long-term strategic planning (which would make fixing the two bullets immediately preceding actually feasible)

In 2009 in Atlanta, we saw a funder take the leap into the great unknown of GOS.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) listened to the organizations they had supported for years with capacity building grants and heeded the call to convert their funding to GOS.  As Executive Director Lisa Cremin stated when MAAF announced the changes, this was not an easy decision nor was it a cinch for the Board of MAAF to feel at ease with judging who was worthy of what level of GOS.  Lisa said again and again that MAAF had to look at the overall picture of the organization, they had to buy into the company’s plan.  How, I ask you, can we demand that funders provide us support that is open ended in terms of uses if we cannot communicate that plan?  And, how can we truly create that plan if we can’t even speak internally about the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us on a fiscal and organizational level?  It is our responsibility to define our paradigm and then clearly communicate that to potential funders and constituents of all kinds.  I won’t even go into the impact of fiscal and organizational transparency on the staff, artists, and volunteers of an organization, that is for another post!

If we want General Operating Support, we must be generally and specifically accountable for where we are and where we are going.  Only then can we begin to ease the terror that funders feel when thinking about donating large sums of money to which no specific project tied.  Once we get our ducks in a row then, and only then, can we begin to petition for GOS in earnest.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts!

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Arts management, theatre

 

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Is your ideal customer on your Board?

I’ve been thinking more about this ideal customer idea and how it relates to the non-profit arts.  We actually have an advantage over for-profit ventures, we could have our ideal customer as a key advisor.  We could have them on our Board.  But, do we?  We spend so much time thinking about what slots we need to fill on the board: deep pockets, corporate contacts, fundraising experience, marketing expertise, finance, real estate, law.  What about an ideal customer?

Do any of y’all have someone on your board that could be the poster child for your company’s ideal customer?  If so, are you talking to them about what brought them to you & what keeps them coming back?  Are you picking their brain on a regular basis about where they get their information and how they share it?  If you don’t have this person on the Board, do you know someone in your patron base you should be courting?

Let me know your thoughts on this!

 

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You are not for all markets: Embracing niche marketing

In my last post I talked briefly about creating the profile of what John Jantsch calls the “ideal customer.”  (Yep, another post inspired by The Referral Engine)  In the theatre world we tend to shy away from the idea of creating one customer profile because we like to think that, if we could just get them in the door, most people would love what we do.  Please, keep believing that.  Hope springs eternal.  However, think about the power (and return on investment) of taking a smidgen of your marketing plan and focusing it on your true, core, ideal patron.

As an example, I’ll profile who I think is the ideal customer of Synchronicity Theatre:

  • Female
  • Professional
  • Well-educated
  • Household income of $75,000 or above
  • age 30-60
  • liberal
  • active member of a socio-political civic organization and/or corporate women’s affinity group
  • living within the neighborhoods surrounding 7 Stages Theatre

Think about the focus this provides to the marketing initiatives.  Immediately we know which blogs we should be reading and leaving comments on, which organizations we should be partnering with, where we should be setting the Artistic Director up with speaking engagements, etc.  Being this specific does not mean that we are turning away politically moderate stay-at-home moms or men right out of grad school.  But, those niches aren’t our ideal patron.  Our ideal patron will jump fully into our mission and revel in every nuance of it, understanding immediately the power and purpose of our company.

I challenge us all to take a moment with our key staff and construct the profile of our ideal patrons.  Then, for the entire next season, commit to targeting this patron in every way we can.  Notice nothing I listed above costs marketing dollars, but if you have the money, put some of it behind this experiment.  Plan out your key metrics now and track them against your general outreach and this targeted campaign.   Back to The Referral Engine, Jantsch lists these four goals as good measures to start with:

  • Lead generation:  For our purposes, let’s count this as how many people you are getting your message in front of with each campaign
  • Percentage of leads converted: How many folks from your initial list actually buy a ticket / attend an event?
  • Cost per customer acquisition: This is important!  How much did you spend per converted customer for each campaign?
  • Average dollar transaction per customer: How many tickets did they buy and at what price point?

I would like to add one more indicator:

  • Total income generated per customer acquisition for the season: I contend that your ideal customer will come back more often than the general target.

Come on, try it with me for a year.  Let’s report back at the end of the 2010-2011 season and see how we did.

 

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Everyone is on the team, or, Marketing is not a dirty word

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m reading The Referral Engine by John Jantsch (and LOVING it).  The book is about how to build a system that gets your company consistently talked about and recommended by all who come in contact with it.  In the theatre we don’t often think about our patrons as “referring” others to us, but that is exactly what they are (or should be) doing and this book is just as applicable to our work as it is to a general contractor.  I’ll probably post a few notes relating back to this book, but this first one is prompted by something Jantsch talks about on page 19 (yep, it gets good early).  Here’s the direct quote:

Teaching every new employee everything you can about your organization’s marketing strategy, marketing plan, positioning, messaging, ideal customer, products, services, and brand attributes just makes sense when it comes to creating ambassadors for the organization…

… Smart companies make sure every employee understands how to spot an ideal customer, how to properly introduce the company’s story, and how to spot trigger phrases prospective customers use, and clues they give, that mark them as potential ideal customers, even if selling isn’t a part of that employee’s job description.

This basic training should be implemented at the outset and consistently and repeatedly reinforced.

This should be taken even further within an arts organization.  Not only should this information be communicated to employees, it should be part of the orientation for the board, our artists and technicians, and all volunteers.  In fact, I propose that every time Jantsch uses the word “staff” or “employee” throughout the book, we should automatically include board, artists, technicians, and volunteers.  We need to be harnessing the power of everyone that contributes to our organization.

I know what you are thinking, “What actor/designer/carpenter/usher is going to take time to read our marketing plan?”  The answer is, they won’t.  So, it is our job to get this information to them in a simple, engaging, easy-to-spread way and to give it to them in bite-sized pieces over time.  Here are some ideas, please share your own in the comments:

  • Find your “one word” (from Dave Charest) and use it to sharpen everyone’s focus
  • At the initial orientation (and in the information packet you should be providing already) include a section about marketing:  what’s your org’s voice? where are you maintaining a presence (online and off)? who is your ideal customer?
  • Make everyone’s role in marketing EXPLICIT.  Most people can’t take hints.  Tell them straight-out that they are the front lines of communication for the organization and that it is essential that they share their knowledge and love of the company.
  • Provide everyone with timely and consistent updates on how the marketing strategy is going.  You are probably already providing a financial “dashboard” to the board at each meeting.  It is time to do the same for marketing, but don’t save it just for the board!  Let your staff, artists, technicians, and volunteers know exactly what is happening with your most important measures (ticket sales, Facebook friends, email click-throughs, promotion redemptions, re-tweets, blog mentions, Google ranking, etc.)  Pick 4 things you are going to track and have specific goals that you can communicate your progress on clearly and consistently.
  • Highlight folks in the organization that are going the extra mile to spread the word.  We already do this for our major donors, it is time recognize the evangelists in our organization at the same level.

Marketing is not a dirty word, it is the life blood of engaging folks in our organizations.  It isn’t about the hard sell, it isn’t about interruption and pushing.  It is about communication and desire fulfillment.  How we sell the idea of marketing to our potential evangelists is as important to our success as how well we sell tickets.  Go forth and market!

 

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